EPA failing to inform or protect folks returning to post-Katrina mess

The U.S. EPA has the authority to assess and manage environmental disasters, but activists and even some EPA staffers allege that so far agency testing of water, air, and soil in the Gulf Coast has been insufficient, and its health warnings too weak, to adequately protect returning residents. EPA should be more actively preventing people from coming home, say critics, but is instead delaying and under-publicizing test results. People are entering the post-Katrina miasma of toxics, mold, and sewage under-informed and ill-equipped — like folks from Meraux, La., who’ve been allowed to return to homes that were inundated with petroleum when a nearby storage tank burst, gushing an estimated 800,000 gallons of oil. In responding to Katrina, the EPA has been “understaffed” and “overwhelmed,” says Oliver Houck, who runs the environment program at the Tulane University Law School. Some liken the current situation to the agency’s performance after the 9/11 attacks, when it assured thousands — falsely, it turned out — that it was safe to return to homes and workplaces near Ground Zero.